Our history lives with us in many ways. In Milwaukee, there is a distinct joy of experiencing history through architecture. The fact that Milwaukeeans proudly refer to this place as the “Cream City” shows how much adoration this city has for its old buildings. Whether a building is a plain, 1890’s brick corner shop, or has a sumptuous façade like that of the Plankinton Arcade Building, all these structures call to us in many ways. From the heritage they represent to the craft and ornamentation they are built on, the “old” architecture is appreciated deeply in our hearts. As we continue to live with so many historic structures, it is important we challenge how they shape our built-environment and the narrative of our community.
The Railway Exchange Building was recently a part of a test on how the built-environment is a reflection of who we are and how we represent ourselves. A mural by artist Shepard Fairey was proposed for the south side of the structure. It was supposed to be based on his artwork, “Voting Rights are Human Rights,” which was one of two prints in his series, “American Rage.” The artworks were designed in collaboration with Steve Schapiro who documented civil rights protests in the 1960s.
Admittedly, the print is a beautiful work of art. And I appreciate the artist’s effort to represent issues that our society is struggling with. As prints on a wall with proceeds that support the Equal Justice Initiative and Black Lives Matter, the artist is doing their fair share in using their privilege and voice to support a greater cause. Unfortunately, as a mural in downtown Milwaukee, the work is a totally different conversation.
First let us begin with the subject of the building itself - which is a lovely sight of architectural terra cotta. It is a product of late nineteenth-century Chicago School commercial architecture designed by Buemming & Dick of Milwaukee alongside Jenney & Mundie of Chicago. The visual language of the façade follows traditions of classical antiquity. It’s tripartite design is based on three portions of a column. Its arched entryway is decorated with a keystone, rosettes, festoons, and cartouches. The upper stories are where the real party exists, decorated with cherubs, lions, anthemion, and all the aforementioned details. While the brown, earthy red exterior materials are brick and terra cotta, they simulate Lake Superior brownstone. This imitation of carved stone gives the impression that the façade is of high-quality, expensive taste.
I find value in explaining all these details because they were meant to be a display of Henry Herman’s wealth and success in 1900 when the skyscraper was being built. Mr. Herman had acquired the Copper Range Railway at the beginning of 1897 with George Dow of Cambridge, Wisconsin. By 1899 he was General Manager and Treasurer of the Chicago & Superior Railway. Herman had great interests in becoming a real estate businessman and constructed this office building to house offices for law, insurance, and railroad businesses. A portrait of him and his curly mustache can be seen on the front page of the Milwaukee Sentinel from Tuesday, December 19, 1899. The measure of his part in the railroad industry and real estate was expressed through the building of this structure and its use of ornament.
Unfortunately his capital success was more of a fantasy than actual prosperity. He apparently had strange business practices revolving the assigning of mortgages and ended up with many financial problems. On April 17, 1903, the Milwaukee Journal reported on these affairs and how Herman had apparently gone missing. His potential whereabouts were as close as Chicago or New York or as far away as New Orleans or South America.
Although the image of Herman in Milwaukee is primarily only preserved through the structure he left behind, the actual story of this person does feel a bit lost. A hundred and twenty years ago this symbol of Henry Herman was a celebration of his capital success and a reminder of his failure. It was the story of a white man and his business affairs. Yet the erection of the building also represented the conquering of the native landscape and extracting its natural wealth. We can appreciate the ornamental beauty of this building, but we would be foolish to ignore how cultures different from the white industrial male were and continued to be affected by this symbolism.
This brings us back to today with the recently proposed mural and its artist Sherpard Fairey. Featuring the artist on this building would add to the narrative of this space as a white-male edifice. As I have tried to make clear, this building is rooted in the story of whiteness and male entrepreneurship. Fairey’s story is not terribly different. And the scale of this project and its location on the building would give it generous visibility to the public, adding to the skyline that is already predominantly built by the vision of white men.
Acknowledging the identity of the artist and the history of the space as primarily white and male is part of the picture, but does not make commissioning Fairey a problem. White men creating murals is not the argument. Fairey’s mural depicts a political message about the struggle of Black people and their right to vote in this country. If it were to be installed, it would be another example of a story about a people of color struggling for justice being told by a white person. This causes many issues, especially for a city like Milwaukee, where the African-American story too often comes through the white lens. Furthermore, it would be another white person benefiting from their struggle.
Fairey’s message as a print is very different from a large-scale, downtown mural. Its size-able presence in the skyline makes the problem unbearable. I think the fact this mural was rejected for a totally different reason - that of the Historic Preservation Committee needing to complete their guidelines for the installation of murals on historically-designated properties, is a blessing in disguise for community members who did not see the issues represented in the Fairey mural as a problem. The decision opens up time for more conversation on how buildings represent who we are and who is invited to participate in shaping our built-environment.
I would hope that the property owners of the Railway Exchange Building go forward with commissioning a person of color to be showcased on their beautiful building. I think they have demonstrated their ability to collaborate with community organizations to create opportunities for artists. Also, based on the content of Fairey’s proposed mural, they have shown interest in representing diverse voices.
Milwaukee is a city with many gorgeous buildings of the past. Their history is certainly almost all founded on the story of the industrial white male. And I want to make sure it is clear that it is okay to be proud of that history and see the beauty in it, as long as other perspectives are brought to the table as well. Our community has grown and I think this proposed mural shows that our built-environment has not necessarily grown with it. More can be done in the vein of true inclusion. And it includes both recognizing the work people of color are already doing in narrating the story of our urban landscape and granting them more opportunities that shape our historic architecture.
Sources & Further Reading:
Letter Pleading More Community Dialogue on Mural by local artists
Urban Milwaukee August 3 feature on the Voting Rights Mural
Urban Milwaukee July 9 feature on the Voting Rights Mural
Bobby Tanzilo's 2015 Feature on Railway Exchange
Old Milwaukee Database
"Building a Railroad." Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, 6 Jan. 1897, p. 8. Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers.
Milwaukee Journal, FOURTH ed., 17 Apr. 1903, p. 8. NewsBank: Access World News – Historical and Current.
Adventures and reflections on the ornament and craft of architectural terra cotta in the majestic Midwest!